Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tania: My Japanese Brazilian Penpal

I am about to embark on an 18-day adventure to South America with my traveling companion. It is both our first time to discover this continent. Though an experienced traveler, I am very excited about this particular trip.

I first developed a wanderlust spirit back in the early 1990s when I was attending Intermediate School 131 in New York’s Chinatown. The teen magazines at that time had these penpal services and I started writing to dozens of teenagers my age around the globe. Young and too poor to travel, summer vacations were spent behind the desk memorizing Tang poetry in Chinese School on Mott Street. And every few years my family would take the summer months to be in our village in China where I was born. But travels of far away places were vast in the mind, and a seed of adventure was planted in me.

One of the penpals I wrote to that year of 1994 was Tania. She was a Japanese Brazilian from Sao Paulo. A second generation Japanese born in Sao Paulo, I learned not in Geography class but through correspondence with her that the largest Japanese population outside of Japan is in Brazil. It was incredible to find people my age, from all over the world who shared a passion for learning about different cultures, for writing. I was so content writing letters to these penpals, I never thought one day I would have the opportunity to visit them.

Snailmail became out of fashion as electronic mail entered the scene in the late 1990s but our friendship survived. We continued to keep in touch, and eventually met in person in January 2002 in Montreal where Tania was studying abroad. After university I moved to Europe and Tania came to visit me in Paris in summer 2006 while on her Europe backpack tour. We met again in New York City in September 2008. And finally this New Year Eve, after fifteen years of correspondence, I get to visit Tania in her home country! Young adolescents that we were, we built a friendship connection so strong, so enduring that it has transcended time and place.

I believe 2010 is going to be an amazing New Year and decade. It already is - by starting with something significant – reconnection of old friendships.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Morning Jog & Relationships

At 6:30am, I stepped out of apartment building for my morning jog. The ground was carpeted with fallen Autumn leaves, wet from last night's rain. As I walked over to Tompkins Square Park, I waved hello to the regulars I see every morning. I made a few laps around the park, and my parents soon joined me.

Mom and dad never stay for as long as I do. After about thirty minutes of jogging, they settled by the jungle gym area for cooling down. As I continue jogging around the park, through the tree branches I see the shape of two familiar bodies. My parents stretched together in peaceful silence, almost like a harmonious dance.

There is much to learn from people a generation before us ... after thirty-five years of marriage, it is a relationship still committed, humble, resilient.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paris to New York : A Moveable Feast on Two Wheels

Ernest Hemingway wrote in his book, A Moveable Feast:
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young [wo]man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Hemingway stayed in Paris in the 1920s when he was in his early 20's. Eighty years later, I also got the opportunity to live in Paris in my early 20's. Like Hemingway, the experiences in Paris has a profound and lasting impression on my life. I have since left Paris to move back to New York City - but Paris is indeed a moveable feast. It came in the form of bicycling in downtown Manhattan.

I learned to ride the bike for the first time in my life summer 2007 in Paris. This summer 2009 I participated in the Bike Around Downtown New York program. I am no longer a beginner (though still mastering those brakes and turns!) - but the enthusiasm of when I first learned to bike is still there, ever strong. Marie Pierre would be proud to know that her student has learned well and kept the passion going ... two years later, a whole ocean away.

Learning to ride the bicycle in Paris holds a lot of significance me. It is a city I love dearly, and though I no longer live there I still think of the city and the friends fondly. As I did on two wheels along the Seine River, passing by Notre Dame, Musée d'Orsay, Eiffel Tower ... I am elevated on two wheels and cycling from South Street Seaport, to Battery Park, a view of Statue of Liberty, up along the Hudson River. I lived in Paris for over five years and thought I know it well, but near the end of the journey I saw the city in a new way. On bicycle I also got a new perspective of New York, this city I have called home since 1985.

Good memories never pass, they linger in us. Great memories, get stronger with time. Living in Paris in my early 20s taught me a lot. It has inspired me to learn to see a place with a fresh new eye. In Paris I was young, a foreigner in a new land, life was full of romance, culture and arts. I am no longer in my 20s now, but I try not to let those precious life experiences escape me with age and time. I came back to New York - not with indifference - but with great curiosity, interest, a passion to discover and explore, as I did with Paris - it's as if I have fallen in love with New York all over again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sound and Fury, Signifying Everything

New York City is a place filled with infinite possibilities of things to do, especially in summer time. So many choices that it is an activity itself to filter out what are the worthy and interesting activities to do. Ironically, sometimes it is the unexpected and unplanned events that turn out to be the most memorable.

On this late August evening I was invited to an event I knew nothing about, except it is a play about Macbeth and is being acted out in Mineral Springs in Central Park. Without inquiring further, I gave an affirmative reply. Those two details was enough reason for me to want to attend. I worked in Central Park as a summer youth intern and love the park dearly, and am always happy to have a reason to return to visit. Shakespeare’s plays have interested me since high school where one very passionate English teacher, Mr Illman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of the Arts taught the students the Shakespearean plays so thoroughly well that a lot of the scenes and soliloquy still stick firmly on my mind today.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Twelve years later … just a few blocks away from Lincoln Center where I first learned Shakespeare’s plays I have the unique occasion to come see Macbeth performed by a young theater group, Extants Arts Company. Founded in 2007, the cast and crew are young, in their mid 20s, talented, and passionate. The director says, “Here in the park, against the backdrop of trees and sky, we can appreciate the most elemental story of Macbeth – the story of the society man has built upon the foundation of natural allegiances of kinship and marriage. We can see what these relationships can inspire us to become or what they can drive us to do”.

The weather has been scorching hot and humid this month of August. Recently a thunderstorm had struck more than 100 trees in Central Park, the most severe destruction that the park had experienced in the last 30 years. When I got to Mineral Springs, I noticed a huge fallen tree, kept off by yellow caution tape. The theater group has been rehearsing in Mineral Springs for some time - but their set has just been changed. Nonetheless the group adjusts and adapts; nothing deters their enthusiasm and the show goes on.

At 6PM the show starts and the audience has settled themselves on the picnic blankets on the grass. It was the first time I ever experienced sitting outdoors for a theatre performance. Unlike the traditional setting, where there’s a stage for the performers, and seats for the audience – here the audience is part of the set. The actors were performing in every direction, and we physically had to move our heads, move our bodies to react to the different scenes. It’s dynamic and engaging!

During the intermission, the audience was advised should it start raining, they could leave and come back the following day to see Act II. As raindrops steadily fall on my open umbrella, the actors continue their lines … oblivious to the rain. None of the audience left. The rain only made the scene more interesting. When MacBeth encounters the three witches, lightening sounds the sky, almost on cue.

Daylight fades from the park, the last act has ended, and the whole cast of eleven members stood in a row, bowing to the audience. The sound of applause fills the quiet park air and I glanced at each of the actors in admiration. They all put on a great show. The evening’s unexpected performance really liven me up. It left such a lasting impression on me that if I was to meet Shakespeare then and there, I would say to him: Life may be a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and heard no more, a tale full of sound and fury - but for sure, it signifies a lot.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Secret 'Community' Garden

The East Village has been my home since 1992 when my family first moved here from Chinatown. One distinguished characteristic of this neighborhood are the many community gardens. Of them all, my favorite without a second thought, is the 6BC Botanical Garden. This place is for a New Yorker, a Manhattan resident, an East Villager, an oasis from the busy city life.

Stretches of vines covered the tall iron gate. Bushes hide the view of the outside traffic of cars and pedestrians. My favorite spot to sit is at the stone table. Here I have spent countless hours reading and writing, pondering about life. Or just simply enjoying some precious moments of solitude. There is privacy here, despite it being a public space. A tiny pond is the home for a few delicate water lilies. The garden is filled with many diverse plants and though small in size, I feel like being in a forest. I am now a regular visitor, but I still enter the garden each time impressed and in admiration. Such care in creating something so beautiful, out of what was once nothing.

6BC Botanical Garden came from a rubble-strewn empty lot in the early 1980s when East Villagers, all volunteers, started re-building it. It is part of GreenThumb, a program of the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation. “Established in 1978, GreenThumb remains the nation's largest urban gardening program, assisting over 600 gardens and nearly 20,000 garden members throughout New York City. GreenThumb was initiated in response to the city's financial crisis of the 1970s, which resulted in the abandonment of a tremendous amount of public and private land. Residents of these devastated communities transformed these unattractive and unsafe spaces into green havens. These community gardens, now managed by neighborhood residents, provide important green space, thus improving air quality, bio-diversity, and the well-being of residents. But gardens aren't just pretty spaces; they're also important community resources.”

I went away for college and lived abroad in Paris where I frequented many of the city’s little parks and gardens. In the past year and a half, I immersed myself in environmental filmmaking and was exposed to more of what Nature has to offer. I have come to acquire a genuine appreciation for the conservation of green spaces, and feel for city dwellers it is especially needed for a balance living.

After a near decade away I came back to New York City to find a lot of the characteristics have changed. Like other neighborhoods in Manhattan, the East Village has been affected by the city's exploding development - and 6BC like that of other New York community gardens, was threatened. I am very grateful that such unique things like the community gardens are still here today in the East Village.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Bouquet of Broccoli

Finding love and keeping love in a big city like New York is not easy. With a population of over eight million people of locals and transients, there are many choices. There is a never-ending way to meet people: social parties for all type of interests, online dating, speed dating, industry networking meetups, matchmaking by family, friends, co-workers, etc. Many choices, many options, and as a result, many reasons for people to have an excuse to move on, one person after the next. Is it possible to find genuine, lasting love in a city like New York?

A year ago I met up for brunch with a group of girlfriends, in our late 20’s to mid 30’s. Of the various subjects we talked about, one was about relationships. Having moved back to New York just recently, I was not aware of the difficult dating scene. I, being the ever optimist believe that it is possible to find true love naturally. One girlfriend warned me that love just doesn’t happen that way. She gave a scenario of a supermarket, how a girl reaches out for a broccoli just as the guy reaches out for one and a great rapport strikes up between the two. Such scenario, my girlfriend says – I must erase it out of my mind because it will never happen in real life. The reality is that there are so many false starts, so many lost opportunities, so many disappointments, so many rejections, so many broken hearts – is it a surprise that so many people have become so jaded and so cynical?

But still, I remember the broccoli.

What intrigued me about my girlfriend’s example was not so much the supermarket, or that the guy and the girl reach for a broccoli (though I do love vegetables and broccoli is indeed one of my favorite) - What intrigued me was the possibility that things can happen on its own, the serendipity - that two people can meet and really find a connection, that things can work out. Finding someone to fall in love with is a miracle. Staying in love takes a lot of work from both sides, and sometimes it really is beyond one’s control. But I believe finding that special someone to love and to be loved is really worth the while. It makes a normal walk in Central Park that was once so habitual a whole new experience. It makes a cup of milk tea taste so much sweeter. It makes plain written words so much more multi-dimensional. It makes just merely being held in each other’s hand so full of emotions and love.

My favorite writer during college was Dostoevsky. In Brothers Karamazov, the character, Grushenka comments that she has done so many bad deeds but she is redeemed, because she gave an onion to a beggar. "Just know one thing, Rakitka, I may be wicked, but still I gave an onion." (Book VII, Chapter 3). In this big metropolis of New York City, where life and experiences may have caused cynicism and hopelessness about love - maybe we can have faith again in broccoli?